By Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. One of the many negative effects of this pandemic is on our friendships. We are more isolated and confined to our social bubbles with social contacts greatly discouraged because of the risk of infection. Each day we use social media, emails, texting and phone calls to keep in touch with friends and family but we all know it isn’t the same as real contact. There are friends we haven’t spoken to in a long time and haven’t seen in months. Remote learning is necessary for the moment but far from ideal because it lacks that vital component of inter-personal interaction between teachers and students and between students themselves. Digital technology simply isn’t a substitute for spending time in the company of our friends. As Pope Francis warns in ‘Fratelli Tutti’, digital relationships do not demand the ‘slow and gradual cultivation of friendships…Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity’ (para. 43).
In the absence of direct contact with many friends in these days, I reflected on the value of friendship in the light of a beautiful passage from the ‘Office of Readings’. It is taken from the joint feast day of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzen on 2nd January and is a sermon by St Gregory in appreciation of his dear friend Basil. In this sermon, Gregory not only praises his friend but gives us an important insight into the nature of a solid and joyful friendship. Here I try to unpack what he says.
Gregory tells us that he and Basil were close friends from their childhood but then they separated physically because of their education. He went to one place and Basil to another. But now, at the time of writing, Gregory is overjoyed for they had reunited in Athens. Gregory interpreted this reconnection as part of divine providence and a gift from God: ‘we were united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it’. Did you ever feel that a friend was sent into your life for a good reason? Do you believe that meeting friends and making friends is not by chance but is directed by a providential power greater than your own? If so, then you join with Gregory in seeing things this way. Loving and healthy friendships are not our achievement but God’s gift to us. Friends make us better people and are sent by God to make us that way – to encourage us, to protect us and sometimes to challenge us in a way that says ‘you can do better; you can be better’.
Gregory then names the virtues of his friend Basil – his conduct, his wisdom, his maturity and life-giving conversation. Are we aware of the virtues of our friends? What are they? Can we rejoice in them as if they are our own? Can we speak of them to the person themselves and tell them how much we admire them for these virtues they have? Gregory shares that he wanted others to know and admire Basil too. In this he was successful: ‘I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay…he was held in highest honour’. Here was a man who did not cling to his friendship in an exclusive or possessive way but wanted others to enjoy the gift of friendship with Basil too. Here is the antidote to friendships that can become too possessive and not open enough to include others.
Gregory describes his friendship with Basil as warm and affectionate. He talked about ‘the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other’. True friendships are not cold and contractual. There is real affection at the level of the heart of one for the other. St Thomas notes that ‘friendship is the most generous inasmuch as friends are loved for the sake of themselves (cf. On Ethics, 8, 6)
Then Gregory reveals a shared ambition that united them. Was it hard work? Was it ambition for money or material things? No, but rather a joint ambition for wisdom: ‘we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom’. On this foundation followed the rest: ‘we became everything to each other; we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal’. So was their friendship living and growing. It wasn’t static: ‘Our love for each other grew daily, warmer and deeper’.
Closely related to their shared love of wisdom was their love of learning. As Gregory points out something that is still true today ‘this is an ambition especially subject to envy’. In our pride we often assert ourselves and claim to know more than our opponent in order to win an argument. In the case of Gregory and Basil there was indeed rivalry between them but not as we expect. They rivaled each other in humble submission to the other: ‘Between us there was no envy. On the contrary we made capital out of rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other’.
Gregory then beautifully explains why they did this: ‘for we looked on the other’s success as his own’. Can we rejoice in the happiness and success of others as if it were our own? If so, then we tie our happiness to people beyond us in a way that makes us share their joy. St Thomas Aquinas once wrote that in the life of heaven, one of the reasons for our joy will be the joy we see others enjoying (On the Creed, 12) Their joy will be ours and ours will be theirs. Like the angels declared to the shepherds on the first Christmas night in Bethlehem, ‘I bring you news of great joy; a joy to be shared by the whole people’ (Luke 2:10).
Gregory describes the bond with Basil as both of them possessing a ‘single spirit’. Here is the recognition that even while they were physically apart, they were united by a powerful spirit that united their hearts. Yet, their unity was not only one of feeling or shallow sentiment: ‘Our single object and ambition was virtue and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come’. It is worth naming these virtues that the two friends were committed to pursue: the theological virtues faith, hope and love and the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence and temperance. Do we encourage our friends to grow in these virtues? Do they encourage us?
For St Thomas Aquinas, perfect friendship exists for the growth of virtue (cf. On Ethics, 8, 3). Friendships make us better people.
In the words of Gregory, ‘we followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue’. He then adds: ‘we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong’. Again, this raises questions about our own friendships. Are we convinced that the virtues enhance human life and relationships? Do we help each other discern right from wrong or have we forgotten that right and wrong objectively exist? Is it just a case of your truth and mine? The other detail from the friendship between the two saints is that both hoped for the same thing – the blessings that are to come. Both believed that the practice of holiness and virtue brought happiness in the present life but also their hope was directed to the future life of heaven and final blessed union with God. All of their decisions were directed with this ‘end in view that we ordered our lives and all our actions’.
What is our ultimate concern? What do we hope for? What is the ultimate goal of our existence? The first paragraph of the old catechism gives us the answer – ‘To love and serve God and to be happy with Him in this life and in the next’. Everything else is ordered to this final hope. The secret to a well-ordered life is tightly connected to our faith and worship of God. We are united as friends in God and with God. The destiny of the journey guides the steps we take. This is how we are united in the family of the Church. We are on the same boat and headed towards the same harbour. St Thomas once raised the question whether the love between friends ever conflicts with the love of God. The answer of course is negative as long as we do not make our friends our end instead of God. This is certainly true in the case of Gregory and Basil. God was the final end and first love of both of them. This love for God brought them closer together and not further apart.
Gregory concludes the passage by saying that ‘our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians’. Note here that for these friends in God, to be Christian was their greatest identity. It was not a given or something that ended at their baptism but a life-long pursuit or adventure to truly become Christian in name and in truth.
On the night before he died, Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father’ (John 15:15). A friend shares the secrets of their hearts with another friend. This is what Jesus did with us. As his followers, each of us enjoy his friendship; but because of our friendship with him, we become friends of one another too. When we become united to God we become, at the same time, united in God. May all of us be blessed with good friends whom we treasure as gifts from God and may the reward of our friendship with them, be friendship itself.